Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization

The signing of Amendment 64 has plenty of folks talking about marijuana legalization -- even the Obama administration drug czar. Project SAM, which will formally launch in Denver tomorrow, is against the wider availability of cannabis. But the group, whose acronym stands for "Smart Approach to Marijuana," also rejects claims from reformers that its solution to the pot problem is to force users into treatment and education classes.

This last assertion is made by Amendment 64 proponent and Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert in a press release and petition aimed at Project SAM member and former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy; both are on view below. But the University of Florida's Kevin Sabet, a former drug-abuse consultant for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and a SAM principal, rejects these claims.

Reformers like Tvert "live off the false dichotomy that the only choices for policy are prohibition and incarceration or legalization," Sabet says. "But because we don't fit neatly in either basket, we're trying to have a rational conversation about marijuana in this country led by public health in a bipartisan way that learns from mistakes we made with alcohol and tobacco and also corrects the mistakes our current policy has."

Kennedy and Sabet, along with Dr. Christian Thurstone, a Denver-based addiction specialist and controversial member of the Marijuana archive: "Amendment 64 task force, are expected to be present at Project SAM's official debut event, slated for 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, January 10, at the Denver Press Club. (The gathering is limited to accredited media members.) And they're not the only high-profile figures on the SAM bandwagon. Also pitching in is Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum and Kimber Richter, a tobacco researcher with the University of Kansas.

What was the genesis for Project SAM?

"After the vote in Colorado and Washington, I got a call from Patrick Kennedy," Sabet replies. "He called me and said, 'I'm really concerned about how these laws are going to increase the permissiveness of marijuana in society,' especially for people in recovery, like himself, and the fact that this could lead to more problems."

As you'll recall, Kennedy, son of the late senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, didn't seek re-election to Congress in 2010. He has acknowledged past struggles with alcohol and substances such as Oxycontin.

"We knew there were smarter approaches," Sabet goes on -- so he and Kennedy gathered together likeminded folks who agreed to take part in Project SAM. Together, they settled on four major areas of focus.

"First, we want to make sure that the evidence of public-health harms of marijuana is much more widely understood," Sabet says. "It's ironic that legalization has been in ascendance for the past fifteen years, and during that period, we've learned so much more about the negative harms of marijuana.

"Our second focus is to make sure we have a balanced policy. For example, we want to make sure people arrested for marijuana aren't stigmatized by that arrest. We don't want them to lose jobs in the future and have to go back into the illicit economy -- which is why we don't want the criminal justice system to be our knee-jerk response. We want public health to be that knee-jerk response."

How this public-health approach translates is open to dispute.

Continue to read more of our interview with Project SAM's Kevin Sabet. In his release, the MPP's Tvert claims Project SAM wants to "force marijuana consumers into treatment and marijuana 'education' classes." But Sabet puts it differently.

"There should be public-health assessments on people," he maintains. "Nobody's knocking down doors to get to marijuana users, but pot is incidental to other crimes that may be going on -- and we want to make sure that what's going on in a person's life isn't directly related to a marijuana problem."

As for Project SAM's third focus, Sabet pinpoints a desire "to really educate the public about the potential pitfalls of legalization. There's a 300-miles-per-hour freight train heading toward legalization right now, and we want to remind Americans that there are a lot of obstacles, including the influence of Big Tobacco and the possibility of marijuana becoming Big Marijuana. We've actually seen that the tobacco industry is already interested in marijuana, and we want to make sure that doesn't happen.

"And the fourth thing is the rapid development of non-smoked, cannabis-based medication that derives from other active ingredients in the plant. Not just THC -- the ingredient that makes people high. The terminally ill should be allowed to use components of marijuana legally, in a non-inhaled way."

Despite the involvement of Kennedy, a member of a large, wealthy and politically powerful family, Sabet stresses that Project SAM "doesn't have any funding. We're all volunteers." But after Reuters published an article about the organization over the weekend, he says the group has been flooded with "an outpouring of letters from moms and dads and kids who have problems with marijuana and want to contribute."

Partnerships are also planned with other similarly intentioned outfits, including Smart Colorado -- not the organization that worked against Amendment 64, Sabet says, but a new effort associated with longtime anti-tobacco activist Bob Doyle.

By the way, Sabet says Project SAM's use of the word "smart" is in no way a nod to the previous iteration of Smart Colorado. Rather, it simply conveys the group's goal to tackle the marijuana issue with what it sees as intelligence and balance rather than responses that tilt to either extreme.

"We don't want our ideas to be able to fit on a bumper sticker," he emphasizes. "'Legalize Pot' and 'Lock 'Em Up' both fit on a bumper sticker, but what we're doing doesn't. There's an appetite among public-health professionals who work on this every day for straight talk. They know we shouldn't saddle someone with an arrest record and incarcerate them -- but neither should we legalize and make more available a drug that's addictive for 10 percent of its users, and 15 percent, if you start in adolescence."

In regard to the arguments of Tvert and others that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, Sabet readily admits that the latter substances are killers, using language that suggests he'd be happy if they were illegal, too. But in his view, "that horse is out of the barn.

"Alcohol has a long, widespread history in our country. And while cannabis -- not the version that's available today -- has been around for 3,000 years, it's never been accepted in as widespread a fashion as alcohol. And we're certainly paying the price for alcohol's accessibility: $200 billion in lost social costs and twice as many alcohol offenses as for all illegal drugs combined. It's more addictive than crack cocaine, and tobacco is more addictive than heroin. So I would argue that we don't want to follow the same path for marijuana that we did for alcohol and tobacco. We need to do the best we can in our current, realistic circumstances."

Continue to read the Marijuana Policy Project release about Project SAM, plus a petition calling for Patrick Kennedy to drop out of the group. Here's the aforementioned Marijuana Policy Project release:

Nation's Largest Marijuana Policy Organization Slams Former Congressman's Plan to Force Marijuana Consumers Into Treatment and Marijuana 'Education' Classes

Group calls on Patrick Kennedy -- whose family made a fortune selling alcohol -- to explain why he wants to keep an objectively less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal

DENVER -- The nation's largest marijuana policy organization, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), slammed former Congressman Patrick Kennedy's plan to force marijuana consumers into treatment and marijuana "education" classes, which his new national organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), is scheduled to unveil in Denver on Thursday. A state-based group will also be announced.

"The proposal is on par with forcing every alcohol user into treatment at their own cost or at a cost to the state," said MPP communications director Mason Tvert. "In fact, it would be less logical because the science is clear that marijuana is far less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to be associated with acts of violence."

MPP is calling on Kennedy, whose family made a fortune selling alcohol, to explain why he wants to keep an objectively less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal. Specifically, MPP is asking Kennedy to address the question on SAM's website and provide facts regarding the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol. MPP also launched an online petition this morning asking Kennedy to provide an explanation or resign as chairman of SAM, which received more than 1,500 signatures within the first hour of being posted --

"Former Congressman Kennedy's proposal is the definition of hypocrisy," Tvert said. "He is living in part off of the fortune his family made by selling alcohol while leading a campaign that makes it seem like marijuana -- an objectively less harmful product -- is the greatest threat to public health.

"If this group truly cares about public health, it should be providing the public with facts regarding the relative harms of marijuana and discouraging the use of the more harmful product," Tvert said. "Why on earth would they want keep a less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal? Former Congressman Kennedy and his organization should answer this question before calling on our government to start forcing people into treatment programs and throwing them into marijuana 'education' camps."

And here's the MPP petition, which has already exceeded 5,000 signatures.
Patrick Kennedy: Marijuana consumers should not be forced into treatment -- Drop out of SAM!

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is the chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a new national organization that wants to force marijuana consumers into treatment and subject them to mandatory health screenings and "marijuana education" camps.

Yet he comes from a family that made a fortune selling alcohol -- a product that is objectively far more harmful than marijuana!

Sign our petition today calling on Patrick Kennedy to drop out of SAM or explain why he is working to keep a less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal.

To: Patrick Kennedy

Marijuana consumers should not be forced into treatment or subjected to mandatory health screenings and "marijuana education" camps.

You come from a family that made a fortune selling alcohol -- a product that is objectively far more harmful than marijuana.

Please drop out of Smart Approaches to Marijuana or explain why you are working to keep a less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal.


[Your name]

More from our Marijuana archive: "Amendment 64: Should the state run commercial shops for recreational marijuana?"

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